Bruce Lee grew up in Hong Kong, and moved to the United States to further his education in Seattle. After college, Bruce moved with his wife, Linda, to California, where he became a film star, and one of the most influential martial artists of the 20th century.
In 1971, Bruce, Linda, and their children Brandon and Shannon moved from California to Hong Kong in order for him to film Game of Death. It was in Hong Kong in 1973 that Bruce died unexpectedly aged 32. He died intestate.
Lee’s influence as a martial artist has endured since his death, both in the United States and abroad. Lee developed his own style of martial arts, Jeet Kune Do, and is one of the most recognised martial artists in history.
Bruce’s assets were administered in California and in Hong Kong. The California probate proceedings considered Lee to be a domiciliary of California at the time of his death. The Estate paid inheritance tax in both California, and in Hong Kong.
Under Californian law a celebrity who was domiciled in California at the time of their death has a post-mortem right of publicity (“ROP”) .
In California, “[d]omicile…includes both the act of residence and an intention to remain; a person may only have one domicile at a given time, but he may have more than one physical residence separate from his domicile, and at the same time.”
Although Linda testified that the family were living in Hong Kong temporarily, and never intended for their stay to be indefinite, there is an ambiguity over whether Bruce’s domicile was in California or Hong Kong when he died.
Following Bruce’s death, there was a split between Linda, who controlled his estate, and the Lee family, who argued that Linda took most of the revenue from his movies and ongoing licensing and cut them out. Linda said at the time she needed the money for her family. However Robert Lee, Bruce’s brother has asserted that he owns the intellectual property rights – a state of affairs that may have been avoided if Bruce had left a valid Will.
The estate’s only tangible assets were shares in Bruce’s Hong Kong-based production company, which were sold to his business partner, Raymond Chow, in 1976. Prior to administration being granted the Estate spent time dealing with licensing issues related to Lee’s “name, likeness and/or image,” which resulted in litigation, against third parties using Bruce Lee’s image without prior authorisation.
The California Courts distributed Bruce’s ROP to his heirs, with a 50% share passing to Linda and 25% shares passing to their children, Brandon and Shannon. In 2008, Linda assigned her interest in the Lee ROP to Shannon who created Bruce Lee Enterprises, (“BLE”) which is wholly owned by Shannon. BLE claims to be the current rights-holder in Bruce Lee’s ROP, as well as other various trademarks and copyrights around the world. Licensing Bruce’s immage generate around $10 million per year for BLE.
Third parties such as the creators of the “Gung Fu Scratch” T-shirt depicting Bruce Lee behind a turntable must obtain licenses before using Bruce’s likeness on products from either the film rights holder, BLE or both.
The rights to Bruce’s films were originally held by his production company, and upon Bruce’s death passed to his business partner, Raymond Chow. Fortune Star Entertainment, a Chinese company, holds the rights for most films, with Warner Brothers Entertainment holding the rights to arguably his most well known film Enter the Dragon.
If Bruce had made a Will he could have transferred his ROP and given clarity to his loved ones and family by stipulating how he would like his estate including his name, likeness, and image to be exploited.